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Snake Mites

by Chris Jordan Ark Reptile Group

Please note, Ark Reptile Group & Reptile-Cage-Plans.com are not in a position to recommend any of the treatments described below. It is therefore up to the individual's assessment, along with his/her Veterinary Surgeon's advice, as to which is the most appropriate treatment in any particular case. 

At the egg stage in the life of a common snake mite, Ophionyssus natricis, it is impossible to tell whether the mite is male or female, although unfertilised eggs will become male and fertilised ones will turn out female. It is easy to tell whether a mite is an egg or not as eggs obviously have no legs and can not move. The eggs are off-white to tan in color and oval. They are 300 - 400 microns in length and 200 - 300 microns in width. Newly laid eggs, which are often found in clusters on a surface in the tank, are sticky and as the egg develops, one end of it gets darker.

The next stage from an egg for a snake mite is as a larva. Larvae only have six legs, as opposed to eight seen on all other stages so can easily be distinguished from other stages. The developing fourth set of legs can be seen to be crescent-shaped structures behind the third (back) pair of legs. The larvae are small - measuring approximately 400 microns by 250 microns - white and fragile and last only 18 - 24 hours. Sex cannot be determined at this stage by looking at them.

Next comes the stage of protonymph. They are a similar size to the larvae (around 400 microns by 250 microns), but they have developed a fourth set of legs and the other legs can be seen to be longer, especially the first pair. Unfed protonymphs are pale ivory or yellowish in color, they are almost invisible to the naked eye, but when engorged after a blood meal, protonymphs are dark red in color, but not black and smaller than adult females. They also appear to be more segmented. The chelicerae (fanglike appendages near the mouth of the mite) are well developed for piercing the reptile’s skin so they can feed on the blood. The second, third and fourth pairs of legs are spaced evenly around the body for balance and fast movement. The first pair come out at the front, facing forwards, and contain sensory receptors so are used as ‘antennae’. They appear to have ‘claws’ at the end of the legs used to hang on to their host while feeding. There is no sign of sexual dimorphism at this stage of the mite’s life.

The fourth stage is of deutonymph. The chelicerae are less well developed and do not look as if they can pierce skin - from this I can conclude that the mite do not feed during this stage of development. The density of setae (stiff hairs) on the body appears to be less than on the protonymphs or adults. The deutonymphs are larger in size than the protonymphs - the body is around twice the size although the legs are similar in length - and are dark in color (dark red to black) and soft-bodied. When examined microscopically, the body shape is like a thumbprint. Sex at this stage can only be determined from the mite’s lifestyle and habits (but not from the physical appearance): deutonymphs destined to become adult males often hang on to the back of those which will develop into adult females.

The final stage of development for a snake mite is to become an adult. Adults are larger than any other stage and are ‘hairy’ in appearance (covered in setae). Both sexes have a tapered, scleritized body and are tan in color, although fully engorged males are yellow to dark red or black and fully engorged females are dark red to black. Fully engorged males are only slightly wider than unfed males, whereas fully engorged females are rounded and can exceed 1300 microns in length. This difference in engorged color and body shape can be used to tell males apart (i.e. if an adult mite is dark red - engorged - but still quite thin, it is male, but a female would be tanned when she was thin, so if she was dark red, she would be round). The adult male mite appears to have long antennae-like structures protruding from the head from between its chelicerae (the mouth part of mature males may be modified to be used in mating), which also seem to be longer. Like all stages after the larvae, the adult mites have eight legs.

Detection of Snake Mites
There are many ways of checking for the presence of snake mites in a reptile collection. It is important to look for the parasitic (protonymph and adult) and free-living (egg, larva and deutronymph) stages in all tanks of the collection.

The reptiles themselves, their vivariums, hides, water bowls and recently shed skins should all be examined for the presence of mites. On the reptile, special attention should be paid to the areas around the eyes, the chin, the first two rows of scales on the sides of the body (in snakes) and any other crevices, for example ear holes and ‘arm pits’ in bearded dragons and other lizards, on the body or especially the head during inspection for mites. A hand lens should be used to examine any unusually reddened areas or gaps between scales on the animals to look for mites. Mites can be dislodged by swabbing the side of a snake’s body with gauze, this is a good precautionary measure to check for the presence of mites as even low level infestations, which you might otherwise not have noticed, can be discovered.

In the vivarium it is important to look closely at the inner surface of the lid or in the top corners of the vivarium where clusters of mite eggs, resting mites, and mite droppings can be found as small ashy-white flakes on the reptile’s skin. Objects in the vivarium such as corners of hide boxes, and bits of wood in the tank, should also be thoroughly examined. According to the http://www.vpi.com/ website, engorged protonymphs are often found drowned in the water bowls in snake cages, often the first obvious sign of the presence of snake mites in the cage. The observant keeper will notice them sunk to the bottom of the bowl, looking like little flat pieces of pepper that, upon close inspection, are noticed to have legs. Any sample that the owner suspects of being a mite can be fixed in alcohol and examined for identification professionally (if needed) under a microscope.

Prevention of Mite Infestation
To ensure reptiles in a collection remain free of mites, the owner should make sure nobody or nothing can come into contact with the reptiles after handling anything that could potentially harbour snake mites. For example, after handling any reptile, like one at a reptile show or shop or one that belongs to another hobbyist, which they do not know the health of (i.e. whether it is free of mites or not), before coming into contact with your collection, the person should shower and change clothes to ensure they do not introduce mites into their collection.

Snake mites or eggs could be found living on anything which has been close to infested reptiles, for example substrate or feeder mice (which could harbour the mites) from a pet shop or especially a show as reptiles are coming in from all different sources and many sellers allow free handling. Anything that could potentially harbour mites should be sanitised (e.g. cage cleaning tools) or frozen below -20C for at least five days (e.g. feeder mice) as eggs can survive otherwise and then hatch out in the tank after the dormant stage.

Crickets in cricket boxes to feed to the animals may also carry mites if bought at a shop or a show where snake mites were present, so perhaps for this reason it is best to breed your own food to feed to lizards or snakes so you can be sure that they are completely free of mites and are of the highest quality and well gut-loaded too.

Any newly acquired reptiles should be quarantined for a minimum of three to four weeks. They should be isolated from the other reptiles and examined thoroughly for mites. Any equipment used with these animals should be sanitised before being used with the rest of the collection. If you have taken any of your animals to a reptile show, shop or exhibit, they should also be treated in this way. Any animal in the quarantine stage should be kept in a simple tank, which makes it easy to recognise mites: paper towel substrate, a water bowl and possibly a simple hide if the animal can get stressed easily. Materials used in the cage should be disposable and non-porous, and the cage and reptile should be checked thoroughly for the presence of mites.

A reptile suspected of having mites should be kept as far away from other reptiles as possible, isolated by a moat of water and treatment given if needed. If you are not sure whether the animal has mites or not, it should be kept as if it does until you can be sure. To prevent mites spreading, any waste materials from infested cages should be immediately removed from the house (or area where you keep your reptiles) and destroyed by being burned (incinerated), autoclaved (sterilised) or treated with an insecticide to kill any mites or eggs remaining.

First I will look at " Vapona ", a product designed as a fly killer and available from most supermarkets that also works well as a mite remover. The main ingredient in Vapona that kills the snake mites is dichlorvos. Vapona works by releasing the dichlorvos as a vapour, which then condenses into a thin film, covering all of the surfaces (possibly even the reptile) in the vivarium, so for this reason the water bowl should be removed during treatment with Vapona to avoid poisoning the reptile. The recommended dose rate is 6 mm of Vapona strip/0.27 m3), and when used the

Vapona should always be suspended in a sealed, perforated container such as a film cassette with small holes. An advantage of Vapona is that it treats the animal and the environment. However, Vapona does have one very serious disadvantage: it can potentially cause poisoning in the reptiles and the keeper. Symptoms of this poisoning are excessive 'dribbling' (saliva), anorexia, twitching, poor co-ordination, paralysis and, in the end, death.

Some snakes are notably more sensitive to Vapona than others, especially white-lipped pythons, bismark pythons and some Asian ratsnakes, and so it should not be used on these species. It is thought that Vapona has no effect on snake mite eggs and so the eggs must be physically removed or the population will continue. Vapona should not be used in a room that contains arachnids or invertebrates, and it has also been reported to be harmful to finely scaled lizards like day geckos. (Editor's note (2004): this product is no longer available due to concerns regarding the possible carcinogenic properties of dichlorvos ) 

" Mite Off " is a commercially available spray, made by Zoo Med, which is often available at reptile shops. "Mite Off" is spray that is sprayed onto the reptile, thinly coating the entire animal so suffocating the mites that are on it. Advantages of "Mite Off" are that is contains no pesticides, is easy to use and has no harmful side effects on the animals that have been noticed.

A disadvantage of the product is that it only treats the animal not the vivarium or the surrounding room. This means when using this product the vivarium also needs to be thoroughly cleaned and eggs and mites removed. The room it is in should also be treated, possibly by Vapona (as it will not then kill the animal, though the owner could be affected) or even mothballs, which are very effective in killing mites but the fumes are fatal to snakes as well as mites.

" Ivermec " is a form of ivermectin that is commercially available, however, it can only be obtained through a vet. It was originally formulated for use on horses, but it can be used to control or wipe out mites on snakes. Ivermec can be administered orally or injected, and is a very powerful drug when injected, so the recommended dosages are very small. For a spray, the Ivermec is diluted in water to make a 2 % solution (e.g. in 100 ml of this solution, there is 2 ml of Ivermec and 98 ml of water).

The spray apparently kills mite on contact, while not harming the snake, and the injection also kills all mites and tick on the snake with no adverse side effects if injected in the right amount. As well as working very well, another advantage of Ivermec is that it can be applied on to cages and the furniture, and outside the cages, as well as just on the snake, so can treat mites in the environment as well. Water bowls should be removed during spraying of the cage and animal to prevent them from being 'contaminated' with Ivermec.

Treatment can be repeated once a week for a few weeks until there has been no sign of mites for a while. One possible disadvantage of Ivermec is that when used on wild-caught snakes in could possibly kill infestations of lungworms, which are quite common parasites in many boids and colubrids, due to inhalation of the spray, which would then lead to death in the snake if the infestation were heavy. However, this is only theoretical, and could be overcome by using Ivermec as an injection, in which case care must be taken to inject exactly the right amount. One other slight disadvantage is that Ivermec is only available through a vet so is likely to be expensive. 

If I had to use one of these treatments, I would use Ivermec. It seems to have no major disadvantages that cannot be overcome (and most disadvantages are only theoretical) and seems to be a safe and very effective way of eradicating snake mites in a collection of reptiles. As well as being used on the reptile, Ivermec can also be used on the environment, which makes it even more effective. However, more extensive work needs to be carried out to ensure Ivermectin is safe, as it has not been used extensively yet.

Next Issue: SNAKE MITES - Part 2: Further Discussion and Alternative Treatments.

Reproduced with permission from Ark Reptile Group. Original article by Chris Jordan






Mark Chapple is the Author of "How to build enclosures for reptiles"
Find out how to build these cages as well as arboreal cages. Full color pictures, detailed diagrams and easy to follow, step-by-step instructions.